Erotic practices: using BDSM ritual to (re)inscribe gender
(Case Western Reserve University)
Paper short abstract:
Using erotic rituals to disrupt binary attributes usually ascribed as masculine or feminine, BDSM practitioners both resist and reify gender norms. Corporeal experiences (re)inscribe gendered ways of being onto postmodern bodies but practitioners cannot escape from preexisting social locations.
Paper long abstract:
The traits of "dominance" and "submissiveness" are glossed as masculine and feminine, respectively, in the mainstream culture of the United States. Taking to heart Judith Butler's notion of gender as performance, practitioners of BDSM (Bondage/Discipline Dominance/Submission Sadomasochism) in the southern United States engage with gender identity as plastic and attempt to unmoor these attributes from physical bodies. Using erotic ritual practices that often draw implicitly from anthropological theories, such as Victor Turner's concepts of liminality and communitas, group members have created a space to contest the lockstep association of dominance with masculinity and submissiveness with femininity. Although the emic understanding is that these traits are entirely separate from one's gender, which in turn is separate from one's body, in practice the embodiment of these characteristics affects one's perceived gender over time in predictable ways in the larger heterosexual/pansexual group. The existence of a smaller group composed entirely of self-identified "women who play with women" serves as a foil against which to test the hypothesis that dominance and submission may be unlinked from the physical anatomy of a particular person but still strongly associated with a gendered identity. By relying on erotic rituals to reinforce novel constellations of dominant/submissive-masculine/feminine, BDSM practitioners tap into anthropological theories developed in cross-cultural settings which have permeated mainstream American consciousness about the malleability of gender, the utility of ritual, and the role of sex in creating and maintaining social identities.
Innovation and continuity in the anthropology of gender and sexuality (Network for the Anthropology of Gender and Sexuality)